Last week it’s likely your feed on Facebook or Twitter suddenly lit up with people seeking others to join them on something called Ello. Modern technology moves fast, and a term that just seven days ago was a Cockney attempt at saying hi is now the latest social media behemoth: the beast that may finally replace Facebook the way it replaced MySpace — or simply crash and burn, disappearing into the ether that swallowed Friendster.
The makers behind Ello swear up and down it’s different, and its modesty may either make or break it. “Your social network is owned by advertisers,” begins the site’s manifesto. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracker, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”
It ends: “You are not a product.”
Instead of tailored ads, Ello has no ads, nor will it ever (allegedly). Instead of a slick interface, it’s plain and, aside from pictures posted by users, colorless (or, in its words, “simple, beautiful”). Instead of being able to block people you don’t want following you…well, actually it would be nice to have that function. Alas, that lies on their list of things Ello’s team is working on. It’s an anti-Facebook in almost every way, including, right now, functionality.
Ello actually launched early August, birthed by a group of designers and an artist, Paul Budnitz, who is so unlike Mark Zuckerberg that his other job is building luxury bicycles. The original idea was to keep it small, but the Ello team saw enough demand that they were able to build it to the point where it can handle reasonably major traffic — if not quite yet the 1.3 billion who flock to Facebook monthly.
Right now Ello is still invite only, and they’re reportedly fielding 40,000 requests an hour but are so backed up and understaffed they’re slow to respond, to patrons as well as press. When someone posted a screengrab showing their account wrongly suspended, it was quickly denounced as a fake. In any case, the Ello team said, they didn’t even have time to send out personal notices to its users.
Right now, it’s a ghost town, and it may stay that way. Not advertising may, Wired’s Jessi Hempel charges, mean it won’t ever go Facebook-level “There’s a simple truth about social networking: Brilliantly nimble and reliable services cost money to produce and maintain,” she writes on the Wired site. “Its founders eventually will need to find a way to support it.”
So far the plan seems to be to charge, modestly, for certain “special features,” but it’s not clear what those are or if they’ll add up to the dollars that can keep it afloat. Right now Ello seems too good to be true — but then, the Internet is a surprisingly place.
What you can do (now)
So far, Ello is mostly restricted to status updates, in the form of text, images and gifs (but not yet video) and connectivity. It doesn’t require you use your official name, as Facebook does, so actually finding people has proven difficult. (You need to know people’s handles — which right now you can nab from Twitter or Facebook.) There’s an upside to this, though: When Facebook made the controversial decision to force drag queens to use their real names, not their stage ones, they claimed that might open themselves up to abuse. Ello grew in stature right on cue, meaning many in the LGBT community have flocked there.
What you can’t do (now)
You can’t flag inappropriate content, meaning you could still conceivably find a pair of breasts or an unclad male member popping up on your work screen. There’s no private messaging, no private accounts and no app version to consume your life at all times. Perhaps most tragically this drab world is no place for emojis. It also does not seem to function well with Safari, which can turn a minimalist site into one that simply doesn’t work to its fullest capabilities. What it can do, though, is be attacked: On Sunday the site went down for 45 minutes thanks to suspected attackers. It was its first, maybe of many.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge